Thursday, 18 January 2018

'Lives Without Meaning' - English translation of chapter 18 (final instalment) of 'Kuchh Zindagiyan Bematalab' (कुछ ज़िन्दगियाँ बेमतलब) - novella by Om Prakash Deepak


Coming out of the water, she picked up her sheet but left the child’s cloth lying on the sand. She was not cold but anyhow, wrapped the sheet around her shoulders. Her legs below her thighs had gone numb. As she walked she felt her feet were walking, not as per her wish, but of their own accord. And her torso, only because it was attached to her legs, kept moving forward. Once she thought of stopping just to check if her feet would stop, but didn’t. Her entire leg was numb but the cold sand was pricking her soles like pins. Without stopping she looked back and saw her foot prints visible up to some distance and beyond that only fog, and in it a vague impression of the river Yamuna stretched out like a black sheet.

She came to stand by the roadside. Standing all alone in the midst of fog, engulfed by it on all sides, she felt she had come to a completely alien place. The tree next to her appearing even more densely dark. On either side hung small balloons of pale light at short intervals which looked - after three or four – like so many earthen lamps arranged in a row. Though she knew them to be electric lamps, the light could only manage to form a pale balloon in the fog.

She turned her eyes from one side to the other and somehow had a feeling she had exited from the world. Beyond the road lay the world and the sound of ‘ghrr’ passing through it floated down to her (must be a truck, this is how trucks, passing at a distance sound), but she had come out of it isolated, alone. However, she was feeling this need to cry, to cry loudly. But how was she to cry when both her mind and her body felt completely drained. Though she cried often (it had been some days now since she cried), in private and in public. She cried when in pain. But when she cried others enjoyed and laughed … 'she cries like a pig getting slaughtered.'

Her sari, clinging wet round her legs had begun to prick badly. Lifting up the sari a little she squeezed out the water, it wasn’t so bad now. Going under the tree she sat down leaning against the trunk. This was where she had been sitting since the evening. Wrapping half the sheet around her, she covered the child with the other half – 'Give a paisa mai, may your money grow, Saith. May you build your own empire, babu, may you get a promotion, may your children live, brother' – machine like, she went on and on but in her heart, there was fear. 'Jitua is back. Will not spare her when she will return to the shanty. He has come out after serving two months in the jail, will torment her again. It would have been better, had he stayed in jail. The two months had passed comfortably. But the shanty belongs to Jitua. She has no other place to sleep. On other days, she’d have slept even by the roadside but how can she spend the night out in the open in this chilly winter? Perhaps she could, had she been alone. But the baby, who even otherwise keeps on whining, won’t survive if they slept in the open.

And Jitua was a complete dog, grabbing her the moment she lay down, bashing her if she resisted even a little. She cried when the baby kept crying, she cried at the beatings, she cried when it hurt. Not that it made any difference to Jitua. He not only laughed himself but also described to the neighbours the next day how the slut cried like a pig getting slaughtered.

Even Jidda had not spared her, but had not beaten her, she had also had plenty to eat and wear those days. Now she has to beg for whatever she gets. Jitua gave her something only once in a while. Yet, in the end all men turn out to be the same. Always, they have given her pain. Always, a scream rises from within … 'oh mai' … and she can endure no more, can’t prevent herself from screaming out. She tries hard but despite all efforts to smother it, a stifled scream keeps rising inside her. All the women in other shanties laughed, also the men. The women also expressed surprise  and often said that she only put up a sham. This was beyond her. Why would she pretend to be in pain and agony? Also, she couldn’t get it into her head that men gave pleasure. What pleasure? To her, men had always given pain.

When the child was born, she had almost died. But everyone had always said that childbirth was painful. Such killing pain, yet all women give birth. Like her, they too must be doing it unwillingly, as something not in their control. But then, the women in the neighbouring shanties had said, being with a man would no longer be painful. But no! Men have always given her pain and only pain.

The evening drew to a close, the lights came on but she continued to sit there. On any other day, she’d have left by now. But she feared going back to Jitua in the shanty. When he had been put behind bars for two months for peddling opium, her days had passed in peace. Now, she sat there, even when the traffic on the road almost stopped. When someone appeared, she began, 'your money will grow saith, one paisa, may your empire grow, babu. Even when the man went past, she kept repeating mechanically for some time, then fell silent. She didn’t know when she dozed off. Suddenly a gust of cold wind woke her up with a shudder. The fog was thickening. The road was completely deserted.

Wrapped in sheet as the child was, she cradled him on her waist. Carefully picking up the money, she came under the electric lamp meaning to count and knot it up in her sari. Her hand, while counting the money, relaxed and the child swung down at once. As she gathered him up, she felt he had gone completely cold. As she started to wrap him up in the sheet, she thought - how stiff he is, did not even cry. She moved and swayed him, touched him all over. Nothing. Holding the money in one hand and the child in the other, she returned to the tree and sat under it. Sat for a long time. Then getting up, went down the side of the road, the water of the Yamuna river stretched like a black sheet in the fog at some distance.

As she drew closer, she could hear in the silence the low gurgle of the flow of water. She stood still for some time even after reaching the river bank. The cold was freezing and she began to shiver, but took off her sheet and placed it on the sand lest it got wet. She also took off the loose garment she had dressed her child in. Her hand fell upon the black thread tied around child’s belly by a woman neighbour as protection against the evil eye. She thought of snapping it but didn’t. Lifting her sari with one hand, she stepped into the water. The water was biting cold, its current, she felt as if someone was sawing off that part of her foot. Carefully she brought the other foot in, stretching her arm placed the child on the water and drew back. Silently, the child went down but after a while there was a small sound, like a bubble breaking, she thought the child’s head had surfaced and instinctively her foot moved forward. The water there was a little deeper, up to her thighs, her sari dropped from her hands and spread over water. The current there was even more rapid, she felt the sand below her feet shift. She tried to peer through the dark but could see nothing. She turned and walked out. For some reason she was not cold now. Picking up the sheet she wrapped it round her shoulders.

No, she will not go to Jitua’s shanty now. Resting her head against the tree trunk she lay down. Her legs were freezing now, drawing up her knees she folded her legs but couldn’t stand the wet sari. Stretching her legs down, she wrapped the sheet round her back and chest, if she’d draw up her legs, the wet sari would wet the sheet as well.


Delhi, December 1957: The cold wave sweeping the capital these days claimed two more lives last night, of whom one was a woman.

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